The basic facts are that more than 50.000 people gathered in Rio de Janeiro to talk about Sustainable Development of our planet and economies at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20). Led by UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and the Brazilian government—and after some definite moments of doubt—193 governments were finally able to agree to a declaration.
The press has responded critically to the declaration, channeling much of the negative reaction from the NGO community. The negotiated text was perceived as not concrete enough, with no actions, deadlines, and lacking the urgency of the sustainability challenges.
But my view is that we should be glad that there is an agreed text at all. The text confirms that the world still has a platform to look for common solutions. Without that, the very important message to the outside public—beyond what I call the Rio “bubble”—on the urgency of sustainability and the need for required changes would have been very hard to make.
The text itself is a typical case of a glass half-full or half-empty. If one takes a philosophical viewpoint, the Rio+20 conference has again proven that solving a global emergency through a multi-lateral process that requires 193 countries to agree to a text is very unlikely to work miracles. Too many conflicting interests and too many different views get in the way of a far-reaching agreement. And sadly, regardless how urgent, there does seem to be an unwillingness to overcome these challenges.
However, it is worth noting that the text does include clear references to the Green Economy, the development of SDG goals and the need to strengthen sustainability reporting both at a company and at a national level. Seen from this vantage point it is clear that the outcome document provides enough hooks for business to start acting on.
Business Leadership needed
Given this context, there is only one other global force that can take the lead to drive the changes at the scale and the speed needed, and that is business. Recent studies from Globescan and SustainAbility presented during our Business Day in Rio underlined the recognition of this leadership role for business on Sustainable Development.
However, having said that, we must also recognize that in another part of Rio de Janeiro, parallel to the UN meeting, the so called People’s Forum was held and the business role as a solutions provider was seriously questioned there. The mood at the Forum, especially among the mostly younger audience, was filled with anger and disappointment. The lack of political leadership, the failure to address the urgent planetary challenges, the failing economic system and the high youth unemployment were likely the main drivers for this sentiment. Unfortunately, this large group saw business as an outspoken negative force in the world.
Back at the main conference in Rio, in total more than 1.800 business leaders participated—the largest number ever. Our own BASD Business Day had some 800 registered participants and was the largest single business event. Through our partnership with UN Global Compact, we solicited more than 300 meaningful commitments of individual companies to take action towards sustainable development. These have been posted on the UN website. Furthermore business was prominently represented in many other meetings throughout the official UN program.
New and exciting partnerships were announced around Sustainable Energy for All and the
Zero Hunger challenge. Business has also played a very visible and positive role in another important and much-touted initiative, the Natural Capital Declaration. A common mantra that “business has lobbied against a positive Rio outcome,” which has been often quoted, was not visible anywhere in Rio, although it is probably true that it has influenced some of the country negotiations, in particular in USA and Canada.
The good news is that in Rio some things became very clear:
- We know WHY we need to address sustainable development;
- We know WHAT we need to do in order to address the issues;
- We certainly know WHEN we need to do it, and that is NOW.
So with the WHY, WHAT and WHEN questions answered, the only thing that we need to
NOW focus on is:
- HOW are we going to scale our solutions up?
This is good news because business people know "how to do big things.” We, the leaders of the business community must now take the lead and begin to implement solutions and scale them up rapidly.
Twenty years ago business had no voice in Rio. I would not be surprised if 20 years from now that Rio+20’s legacy is as the meeting where Business took the lead in implementing solutions and scale with visible progress, demonstrating its effectiveness.
WBCSD and its members have proven in Rio that they are ready to commit and lead. We have clearly staked our position at the forefront of the reporting discussion. In addition, governments from around the world have expressed interest to work with us to translate the concepts laid out in Changing Pace to national policy frameworks.
I have every intention for WBCSD to support its members in continuing to lead this charge and reach scale to provide solutions for a more sustainable future.